The Wilberforce Award: The population puzzle part 2

Our Neuroanthropology blog has moved to PLoS Blogs, and if you are interested in the topic of sustainable population growth, you may be interested in The Culture of Poverty Debate, The Culture of Poverty Debate continued, and Culture of Poverty: Analysis and Policy.

Attention to the Population Puzzle has been gaining attention with blogs written by: Rachel in Melbourne, Himalayan Sun, EconNewsAustralia, Simon Butler, Thomas Parkes, North Canberra Community Council, Jeremy Williams, Steve Austin, Population Media Center, Sharon Ede, The Australian, 2UE, and more… If there is a team of people ready to constructively and ethically address this problem, then count me in.

So far, over 1,200 people have read my post about The Wilberforce Award, but that’s not enough. It concerns me that only 550 or so people are fans of the facebook group “Dick Smith’s Wilberforce Award“, and that almost 4000 people are fans of a group called “What’s with the sudden overpopulation of wannabe ‘rappers’ ??!!” We need action and education. Or maybe we just need a rapper to bring lyrics about overpopulation to the world stage. Maybe someone like Matt Chamberlin, or… um… maybe not…  I think I’m more partial to someone like Imogen Heap spreading the message with inspiring music and splendid visuals… But Matt’s video clip is a comic and engaging way to raise awareness nonetheless.

Talking about popular music and population growth reminds me of my favourite Indonesian singer, Rhoma Irama  the king of Dangdut music—a popular style of music in Indonesia. When I was doing my fieldwork in Indonesia during 2007-2009, people would laugh when I told them that I liked the music of Rhoma Irama. They laughed even harder when I tried to sing any of his songs. Rhoma Irama was a huge star in Indonesia during the 70s and 80s. In 2007, locals didn’t expect a foreigner in his twenties to enjoy Dangdut music, let alone Rhoma Irama. But talking about Rhoma Irama’s music was a quick and easy way for me to find common points of interest with people in the places I was working. In 1977, Rhoma Irama released a song called “135million” that was about the number of people living in Indonesia and their many ethnic origins. The song still enjoys popularity, but people often joke that the lyrics need to be constantly changed. And really, every year, the lyrics need to be changed. By 1980, the population of Indonesia had grown to 147.5million and today the population is approaching 235million. When you have lived in the shanty towns of Indonesia, the overcrowded villages of the highland regions, and the poverty-ridden cities of the coast, you see first-hand the effects of rapid and unsustainable population growth. (Interested in Indonesia and the developing world? Read more about Globalisation and Ethics in Indonesia, and Globalisation, Ethics and Wellbeing).

Three websites that I highly recommend to everyone interested in birth rate, life expectancy, and population growth is the new Public Data Explorer available through Google;  Gapminder for an amazing array of publicly accessible data; and Poodwaddle World Clock for an engaging site with the most up to date statistics of our times (pun intended). Mixing design, statistics, and experience in global development, Hans Rosling delivers a fantastic presentation on global health for the TEDtalks available through YouTube. I urge you to watch it, you will not be disappointed.

At Macquarie University, I have been teaching for a subject on Human Evolution and Diversity. One of the rooms we use is an experimental education facility where one wall is entirely covered with whiteboad paint. That means that you can use the entire wall as a giant whiteboard. In the final tutorial of the year, I drew a line starting at a power-socket in the bottom left-hand corner of the wall, continued along the skirting board at the base of the wall, and then abruptly curved upwards at the right end of the wall. With the students, we plotted dates, important developments in medicine and technology, and population figures. Starting somewhere around 7million people pre-agriculture some 20,000 years ago, students were amazed to see just how suddenly population has soared since 1500AD (only recently) and peaked at 7billion people at the top right hand corner of the room.  Their faces grew from excitement at the beginning of the tutorial, to astonishment at the end of the tutorial. One of the most interesting discussions was about whether or not we owe China carbon-credits for the one-child policy. After vibrant discussions in all of my tutorial classes, there was a firm consensus that a multi-pronged, interdisciplinary and multi-sector effort was required to successfully implement steps to a sustainable future. Next year, we will continue a study group about sustainable populations for interested students. Our first venture will be to update the information contained in the chapter on “Mining Australia” in Jared Diamond’s illuminating book, “Collapse”.

For those of you who are interested, I have written an article looking at Population growth, urbanisation & pollution in the developing world, which has been published by the postgraduate journal, NEO: Journal for Higher Degree Research Students in the Social Sciences and Humanities, Volume 3, 2010. This article is in English and French and has received fantastic support and feedback from my friends and colleagues in the Amicale des Centres Internationaux Francophones. Merci a vous tous! One of the ideas I raise in this article is the cheap production and distribution of the contraceptive pill to women who wish to use it. Now that the pill is off-patent, it means that we could turn this idea into a reality. And, in light of recent research highlighing the enormous health benefits the pill offers women, this idea becomes even more of an ethical imperative. Contrary to popular and misplaced belief, the pill has actually been proven to have a raft of health benefits. See this TVNZ special for more.

Dick Smith’s million dollar prize is for a solution at home, in Australia. How can we organise our economy, be more strategic about skilled migration, and simultaneously accomodate for an aging population? I recommend following the developments of the Population Puzzle on facebook and Dick Smith’s website. And of course, stay tuned to our neuroanthropology blog for more. As soon as I finish my PhD on cultural evolution, I plan to turn my attention to the question of a sustainable future for the country I call home.
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Your Great x 2360 Grandpa was a Neanderthal!

Is your Dad the descendent of a Neanderthal? Visit our PLoS website to find out more. 

Recent evidence has shown that a small percentage of human DNA is Neanderthal. This Neanderthal DNA entered the human gene pool between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago.

While human DNA may contain traces of Neanderthal ancestors, mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals has not been found in humans. Mitochondrial DNA comes uniquely from your mother. Is it plausible that male Neanderthals were able to mate with female humans, but that the reciprocal cross was unable to occur?

Analyses of the Y chromosome suggest that we share a common male ancestor 59,000 years ago. Could this male ancestor have possibly been Neanderthal?

If our common male ancestor is neanderthal, and considering that the Y chromosome is transmitted uniquely through the paternal line, could it mean that men are more closely related to Neanderthals than women? Have men and women truly come from two different species?

Visit the full post on our PLoS website for the full explanation of this intriguing hypothesis.

Deacon featured on PLoS Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology has moved to PLoS Neuroanthropology.

Our recent feature was Terrence Deacon’s article on the evolution of language in PNAS (May, 2010). You may like to read our in-depth post. Here’s a teaser:

Deacon (2010) puts forward an argument that language was not exclusively the product of the interorganismic processes of natural and sexual selection. Interorganismic processes include differential reproduction, divergence, drift, recombination and environment-correlated preservation (niche complementation). Deacon hypothesises that language evolved from the space for innovation afforded by the relaxation of selective pressures and the recruitment of intraorganismic evolution-like processes. Intraorganismic processes include redundancy, degeneracy, epigenetic accommodation, and synergy-correlated preservation (redistribution and complexification).

To read our more in-depth summary visit PLoS Neuroanthropology. And you can also check below the fold for a video of Deacon lecturing, as well as links to other coverage of Deacon’s work.

Continue reading “Deacon featured on PLoS Neuroanthropology”

Carol Worthman: From Human Development to Habits of the Heart

Carol Worthman, a mentor of mine at Emory University and a real leader in doing neuroanthropological research (even if she might call it “biocultural”), has two recent articles out that I really want to highlight.

The first is The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology. Here is the abstract, part of a whole special issue in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology on the work of the husband-wife team John Whiting and Beatrice Whiting:

The Whiting model aimed to provide a blueprint for psychocultural research by generating testable hypotheses about the dynamic relationships of a culture with the psychology and behavior of its members. This analysis identifies reasons why the model was so effective at generating hypotheses borne out in empirical research, including its foundational insight that integrated nature and nurture, its reconceptualization of the significance of early environments, and its attention to biopsychocultural dynamics active in those environments.

Implications and the evolution of the ecological paradigm are tracked through presentations of three current models (developmental niche, ecocultural theory, bioecocultural microniche) and discussion of their related empirical literatures. Findings from these literatures converge to demonstrate the power of a developmental, cultural, ecological framework for explaining within- and between-population variation in cultural psychology.

The figure above is from this paper, and represents Carol’s own model for understanding human development. But the real point that Carol wants to make in emphasizing these three models goes as follows:

All of these models share a concern for how the cultural ecology of affect and affect regulation drive psychobehavioral development, competence, and well-being or health. Whoever has looked has found linkages among cultural practices, stress physiology, and emotion regulation. Note that each of these models foregrounds the development of emotion and emotion regulation and de-emphasizes classic knowledge acquisition. Although there are important reasons for this emphasis (Damasio, 2005), a reconsideration of what constitutes “knowledge” and more systematic investigation of the linkages between emotion and knowledge might prove valuable (588).

The second article is Habits of the Heart: Life History and the Developmental Neuroendocrinology of Emotion. This article was part of a special issue on Advances in Evolutionary Endocrinology in the American Journal of Human Biology. Here is Carol’s abstract:

The centrality of emotion in cognition and social intelligence as well as its impact on health has intensified investigation into the causes and consequences of individual variation in emotion regulation. Central processing of experience directly informs regulation of endocrine axes, essentially forming a neuro-endocrine continuum integrating information intake, processing, and physiological and behavioral response. Two major elements of life history—resource allocation and niche partitioning—are served by linking cognitive-affective with physiologic and behavioral processes. Scarce cognitive resources (attention, memory, and time) are allocated under guidance from affective co-processing. Affective-cognitive processing, in turn, regulates physiologic activity through neuro-endocrine outflow and thereby orchestrates energetic resource allocation and trade-offs, both acutely and through time. Reciprocally, peripheral activity (e.g., immunologic, metabolic, or energetic markers) influences affective-cognitive processing.

By guiding attention, memory, and behavior, affective-cognitive processing also informs individual stances toward, patterns of activity in, and relationships with the world. As such, it mediates processes of niche partitioning that adaptively exploit social and material resources. Developmental behavioral neurobiology has identified multiple factors that influence the ontogeny of emotion regulation to form affective and behavioral styles. Evidence is reviewed documenting roles for genetic, epigenetic, and experiential factors in the development of emotion regulation, social cognition, and behavior with important implications for understanding mechanisms that underlie life history construction and the sources of differential health. Overall, this dynamic arena for research promises to link the biological bases of life history theory with the psychobehavioral phenomena that figure so centrally in quotidian experience and adaptation, particularly, for humans.

In this second article, Carol is tying her work back into evolutionary theory. If the first took up more the cultural/psychological side, then here we are grounded in the mechanisms and ideas of biological anthropology. She writes here:

Given the evidence of gene-environment interactions and developmental effects discussed above, combinations of history and circumstance will condition the phenotypes generated from the genetic structure, and thus influence the impact of that structure on corresponding experience, welfare, behavior, and the balance of selective pressures upon genetic diversity. Such gene-environment interactions and their consequences for function and welfare deserve investigation across a wide range of human cultures and conditions. Such study bears exciting possibility for unlocking dynamics among culture, social conditions, the nature and distribution of social niches, and selection pressures operating on allelic variants (779).

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology.

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion.

Update: You can see Carol lecture on Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion regulation here.

The dog-human connection in evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgEvolutionary theorists have long recognized that the domestication of animals represented a major change in human life, providing not just a close-at-hand food source, but also non-human muscle power and a host of other advantages. Penn State anthropologist Prof. Pat Shipman argues that animal domestication is one manifestation of a larger distinctive trait of our species, the ‘animal connection,’ which unites and underwrites a number of the most important evolutionary advances of our hominin ancestors.

Shipman’s proposal is discussed in a recent forum paper in Current Anthropology and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Animal Connection. The paper is interesting to us here at because Shipman indirectly poses fascinating questions about the evolutionary significance of human-animal relationships, including the cognitive abilities of both and how they interact.

As Shipman puts it in the Penn State press release about the research, if we only think about what domesticated animals do for us as a species, we miss the truly curious thing about our relationship to them:

No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer…. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?

Although researchers working on symbiotic inter-species relationships might highlight that the support of other species hardly requires adopting their young and feeding them canned kitten food (a critique Travis Pickering levels in his comments), Shipman’s statement highlights nicely that human-animal inter-species relationships seem to extend beyond merely treating them as tameable prey or means to a human end. But then again, this super-instrumentality could be ascribed to a large number of human traits.

The domestication of animals wasn’t merely about capturing a buffet-on-the-hoof, from Shipman’s perspective, but the continuation of a long-term evolutionary project by our species to study animals, first when we were prey for them, and later as predators ourselves.

Continue reading “The dog-human connection in evolution”

People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

And that’s the message!

Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.

She has an essay over at the New York Times, The Third Replicator, and will also be engaged in debate with other folks at On the Human, the online project of the National Humanities Center. The entire essay and further discussion are available there at Temes: An Emerging Third Replicator.

Blackmore’s basic argument is that information is multiplying, and the resulting evolutionary process – due to variation, inheritance, and internet success – is best understood through the concepts of “memes” and “temes”:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace…

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge…

When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator, memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and better meme machines…

[I]n the early 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.

The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!).

The great advantage of this is that most people can follow a two-step analysis, a one-two punch, a back-and-forth dance move. It’s easy, often appealing, and doesn’t require a lot of practice or skill to ape.

Let me go back to my initial play on words, off McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Here’s a part of the Wikipedia entry on just that phrase which reveals the immediate downfall to Blackmore:

McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.

The content of “memes” or “temes,” the simplistic juicy idea, really distracts us from two messages: what the social implications of Ms. Blackmore’s ideas are (and she sure has plenty to say there, and does so often), and how technology actually drives wholesale transformations in ways that makes the the concept of “temes” seem so inadequate, so antiquated. Why are a search engine, a social connector, and a video uploader the three top sites in the world? It’s not because of temes – it’s because people use them.

I could go on and on, but there’s not much point. I’ll let Greg speak for me in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On:

So, why do I hate the concept of ‘ideas replicating from brain to brain.’ After all, I work on physical education and imitative learning; shouldn’t I be happy that memetic theory places such a premium on imitative learning? What is my problem!? Ah, let me count the problems… I’ll just give you 10 Problems with Memetics to keep it manageable.

Greg starts with (1) Reifying the activity of brains, (2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas, (3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?, (4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena, and another six gems for you.

In the meantime, here is someone who actually does work on YouTube and other Internet phenomena, anthropologist Michael Wesch.